KiwiRail – Tourism Lessons For India's North East – Salon Privé Magazine

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KiwiRail has for the past 150 years played the role of connecting people and delivering freight in New Zealand. Apart from this, it has pioneered to showcase New Zealand’s raw and untamed beauty to the discerning world traveller.
KiwiRail has come a long way since those difficult days in the 1800s, setting up a railways network on equally difficult terrain – mountains, marshy lands and what have you. The mission of serving the transportation needs of people and commodities hasn’t changed. What has changed is the process that is ever-evolving and perfectly in sync with the tremendous technological advancements that have been integrated into KiwiRail’s system. The buzzword – “Stronger Connections. Better New Zealand” says it all.
Like the Indian Railways, which is considered to be the lifeline of the nation, KiwiRail too plays a pivotal role in transporting over a million people every year and helps in transporting around 24% of New Zealand’s export commodities.
Apart from the transportation of people and commodities, what sets KiwiRail apart is their focus on Tourism, wherein they have achieved a level of proficiency that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world through their signature brand – “Great Journeys of New Zealand” (www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz).
The Great Journeys of New Zealand through its well spread out network enables visitors to travel to New Zealand’s renowned coastlines and picturesque mountains. So well-entrenched is the network that these days visitors are able to explore regions like Waikato, Ruapehu, Marlborough, Manawatu, Kaikoura as well as the West Coast.
The Great Journeys of New Zealand comprises of four exclusive segments – Northern Explorer (connecting Auckland to Wellington), Interislander (Cook Strait Ferry Service connecting North Island to South Island), Coastal Pacific (connecting Christchurch with Picton) and the TranzAlpine ( connecting Christchurch with Greymouth)
Please be informed that the Interislander ferry service is rated to be one of the world’s most beautiful ferry journeys and New Zealand’s most iconic visitor experience, while the Coastal Pacific takes visitors on a journey of discovery through the fascinating stretches of the sea to the East and the impressive Kaikoura mountains to the West.
The TranzAlpine operates between Christchurch and Greymouth in the winter season and is amongst the world’s most spectacular train journeys that cover 223 Kms. enabling visitors to experience the ethereal beauty of the Canterbury Plains as well as the bewitching Southern Alps. 
The manner in which KiwiRail has been operating its rail and ferry services deserves kudos. KiwiRail has been investing heavily in both terminal and critical infrastructure which has enabled it to provide absolutely world-class visitor experiences to millions around the world.  In fact, there can’t be a better example of a well managed multi-modal transport system for both freight and passengers than KiwiRail.
To give you an idea of how impeccably the KiwiRail system is managed, let us consider for instance the scenario of Midland – Port transportation. In 2016, there were just three trains a week transporting containers to and from Midland to the Port.
At present, KiwiRail operates as many as 16 return services every week from Midland. This has meant that every day around 120 trucks are off the road. The containers are transported more efficiently than ever before from the Port, resulting in negligible traffic delays as well as the reduced costs to the customers.
A large number of containers being off the road has meant that carbon emissions at the Midland Port are in check, thereby offering a truly sustainable logistical environment.
India’s North-Eastern state of Assam has for a long time remained unexplored and virgin in terms of tourism. In spite of possessing great tourism treasures – River Brahmaputra, the world-famous Kaziranga National Park, hundreds of tea estates, great tribal diversity, rich folklore and what have you……Yet, due largely to the incompetency of the government, Assam and the North East had to remain as a backbencher in India’s tourism roadmap.
Now, with India on the cusp of a “Tourism Revolution” and with a Prime Minister who is focussed on implementing India’s Act East Policy, time is ripe to do some soul searching and put in place a system that will ensure tourism as an industry to grow up and prosper.
There has never been a better time to position Assam and India’s North East at the forefront of India’s tourism as the region’s most trustworthy political figure Shri Sarbananda Sonowal, who served as the Chief Minister of Assam has now been appointed as India’s Minister of Ports, Shipping and Inland Waterways in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet.
For a long time, the Government of India was beset with a syndrome – “Policy Paralysis” and the biggest hurdle for successful implementation of any mega project was lack of interdepartmental synchronization.
Today, there is an exclusive Department of Development of the North Eastern Region (DoNER) whose primary task is to ensure the creation of infrastructure for the overall economic development of India’s North-Eastern states. It acts as a facilitator between the Central Government Ministries and the various North Eastern States.
For the tourism industry to succeed in Assam and the North East, organizations like DONER along with North East Frontier Railways and the Ministry of Shipping will have to find a mechanism for seamless integration of policies, planning and implementation.
To harness the tremendous maritime tourism potential of one of the greatest rivers of the world – The Mahabahu Brahmaputra, the Government of Assam’s Department of Tourism must pull up its socks and develop a systematic mechanism of designing credible Riverine Tourism Plans for a cluster of towns through which this great river passes through – Guwahati, Tezpur, Goalpara, Jorhat and Dibrugarh in particular.
The Brahmaputra River is a mythological river. It is all of 2,900 Kms. is one of Asia’s major rivers.  It traces its origins in the icy contours/glaciers of Tibet and passes through India’s North-Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The Brahmaputra unites with the Ganges river and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal.
The state of Assam through which a major portion of the river passes by – 70,634 Sq.Kms. in all, almost bisecting the state into two major halves has meant that there are numerous impressive towns that have evolved over many centuries, offering a superb repertoire of culture, folklore and traditions that are yet not fully explored. 
To fathom the ethereal beauty of the landscape as well as the vibrant culture of the riverine towns of Assam, I am tempted to mention Majuli – the world’s largest freshwater deltaic island! It is simply a coincidence that India’s Minister of Ports, Shipping & Inland Waterways – Shri Sarbananda Sonowal to hails from this constituency.
As the Chief Minister of Assam, Shri Sarbananda Ji had beautifully nurtured Majuli and brought real grassroots level development to the doorsteps of the natives with a slew of government-sponsored projects.
Apart from its exceptional geographic features, Majuli’s rich virile past finds reflection today as a centre of excellence for Vaishnavite Hindus.  It has been the hub of Vaishnavism since the 16th century, courtesy of saint Shankardeva and his disciple saint Madhavdeva who set up monasteries in Majuli. 
As many as 30  “Sattras” or monasteries are still in existence and their one-of-a-kind culture – the Sattriya Dance, Sattriya music and art forms, indigenous musical instruments, customary costumes, folklore, priceless manuscripts etc. are all impeccably preserved.

The people of Majuli are a unique lot and they thrive on agriculture. Some engage in fishing as well.  The artisans of Majuli are renowned for their handcrafted handlooms, pottery and they have taken the art of boat making to an altogether different level. 
The original inhabitants of Majuli belong to the Tibetan-Burmese segment of the Mongoloids and are referred to as Chutias and Deoris. A sizeable number of  Bodo and Sonowal Kacharis too inhabit the island. All in all, Majuli is an island at the crossroads of civilization.
Add to it, the rich alluvial ecosystem blessed with a profusion of wetland areas and grasslands that offer a perfect habitat for a bewildering array of wildlife species to survive – you have all the makings for an Eden on Earth!
Majuli is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there are a number of notable riverine towns like Dibrugarh, Tezpur, Goalpara, Dhubri etc….and they all come with a great set of geography, culture and heritage; waiting for their turn to showcase the stupendous diversity to the world outside.
Taking a leaf out from the “Great Journeys of New Zealand”, it time for Indian Railways, the Ministry of Shipping and the respective Tourism Departments of all the North-Eastern states to come together and formulate packages to lure the discerning world traveller, to entice today’s jet-set visitors and curate extraordinary itineraries and experiences, just the way KiwiRail has pioneered the concept of making every trip to New Zealand a memorable one for visitors.
KiwiRail’s commitment to sustainability is something worth emulating for India’s North-Eastern states. In fact, so deep is their concern for the environment that in their bid to offer spectacular journeys they have not lost track of the sustainability yardstick –  fewer carbon emissions, enhanced passenger safety and 100% pure natural panorama.
Hand in hand with the pace of tourism infrastructure developments in Assam and India’s North East, the Tourism mandarins of the region must be given real-time exposure to similar destinations or organizations.
A FAM tour or Familiarization Tour is one great way of sensitising oneself and I believe Government of India organizations like the Indian Railways, Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of Tourism etc…who are stakeholders in the growth of North East India’s Tourism industry must conduct such FAM tours with organizations like KiwiRail so that the staffs who will don the mantle of steering North East Tourism are aware of the level of proficiency and services expected of them, once the projects are operational.
Hopefully, with a government that is pro-tourism and focussed on developing India’s North East, with a proper mechanism in place in terms of investments in critical infrastructure on the identified riverine towns of the mighty Brahmaputra river, the day is not far when a voyage along the Brahmaputra river will be known as one of the world’s most beautiful ferry journeys, instead of New Zealand’s “Inter Islander”, which now is the proud owner of this tag!
Subhasish Chakraborty has been working as a Travel Journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international In-Flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathy Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a Consultant.

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